Touched: The Rocca Cycle – Chapter 7

East-bound on I-70, Leaving Colby, KS

David stared out the window of Prophet’s Aston Martin into the farmland and darkness that surrounded the highway, counting mile-markers as they passed to know how many they had put between him and the prison that had held him his entire life. Seventy-two and counting. Not enough by far, but they still had several hours of driving between now and Kansas City, and each one left him feeling lighter. No more dumb water tower. No more Wheat-Jesus Billboard. No more Cooper Barn museum. No more parents. No more Colby. No more any of it. 

He turned his attention the bulging envelope in his lap. Like everything about Prophet, even the envelope was nicer than any he had ever seen. It was thick and embossed with gold fills, and almost felt like leather. He carefully lifted the flap and stared at the bulging contents. He ran his finger slowly across the top of the hundred dollar bills, letting them flip by without trying to count them, simply in awe of how many there were, more than he ever imagined would be his. He brought the envelope to his nose and sniffed. New money, the smell of freedom.

His whole body buzzed with a nervous energy. He was happy, actually happy. It had been so long he had forgotten what it felt like. The stark contrast between then and now made him wonder how he had survived it for so long, but he had made it out, and that’s what counted. 

And if you hadn’t killed Ester she’d be here with you. Instead you left her trapped forever in a Colby grave. 

His good mood faltered. He closed the enveloped of cash and stuffed it in his backpack. 

He had tried to help her. He had tried to get Ester to stop taking so many pills all the time.

Oh yeah? Is that why you helped her get more pills? That’s a funny way to “help”.

What was he supposed to have done? She was so sad those last few weeks; her pills were the only thing that made her at all happy. He had just wanted to help. 

Help kill her.

He wasn’t the one who gave up, she was! She gave up on quitting the pill. She gave up on their pact of getting out of Colby. She gave up on him! All she talked about was how nothing mattered. They had been so close! He couldn’t understand why that didn’t matter to her; couldn’t understand why he didn’t matter.

You know exactly why. Leaving you is easy. There’s nothing about you worth living for, let alone loving. It’s not just that you’re useless, it’s how much of a burden you are. Ester would have made it out if you had just killed yourself. How can you even stand it being as selfish as you are? Save everyone the pain of your existence and just end it already!

He couldn’t take it, he needed out of his head.

“You know all that stuff you were telling me,” he said, his voice sounding strange in place of the silence that had been there,  “this morning, about good and bad people?”And, you know…” he gave an incredulous laugh, “saving everybody?” 

Prophet didn’t respond. David shifted nervously, but continued.

“Well, what if…” The words were difficult to say. “What if none it matters?“

Prophet glanced over at him, but said nothing. The words began to rush out of him.

“Like, what if nothing matters?” David tried to think how Ester had phrased it. “What if everything we do is pointless and meaningless and everything is hopeless?”

“Do you believe nothing matters?” Prophet asked calmly.

David shrugged. “What if I do? What if it doesn’t matter whether I do or not? What if it’s true anyway?”

“What you’re describing is Nihilism, the worship of The Nothing.”

“How can you worship nothing?”

“Not nothing. The Nothing.”

“The what?”

“The Nothing. It is the antithesis of all life. It’s where The Emptiness comes from. It has only one purpose: to make everyone Nothing as well. That’s what it means to be a Husk, to be lost to The Emptiness. You become part of The Nothing.”

“But how does nothing want something? It’s nothing.”

Prophet seemed to consider the question for a moment. “How familiar are you with gravity?”

“Uhh.” David tried to think of the formulas he had been taught back in high school, but he couldn’t remember any of them. “Somewhat? Why? Is the Nothing like gravity?”

“In a way, yes. Tell me, what is gravity?”

“I don’t know.” David hated all these questions. “Does anyone know?”

“Gravity is a fundamental physical force, and whether we fully understand it or not, we can experience its effects.”

Prophet pulled a pen from his pocket as he spoke and held it aloft.

“Drop something,” he dropped the pen, “and gravity will take, whether we understand why or not.”

The pen slipped silently between the seats and disappeared. It had gone in so smoothly it didn’t even make a sound.

“The Nothing, like Gravity, wants to pull us down into it, but it’s not our bodies it wants, it’s our souls“

“So it’s trying to get our souls,” David said. “So The Nothing is like, what, the devil? And you say if I think nothing matters I’m worshiping it, so I guess that means you think I’m a Devil-worshiper. Is that about right?”

“I don’t take you for a true believer in Nihilism, so no, but understandably you fear it to be true, and am I right in thinking someone passed that fear to you?”

“Someone told me about it, yeah, if that’s what you mean.”

“Who was it?”

“My sister.”

Prophet nodded slowly. “The Devil is the personification of The Nothing, putting a simple wrapper around something much larger to make relatable, understandable, but The Nothing isn’t a conscious entity maliciously plotting against us, it’s a transcendent spiritual imbalance. Like all imbalances it applies a force, and the result of this force is that it displaces a part of our soul with itself.

“For most it begins with pain. Pain weakens us to it, like a cut on your hand. You won’t even notice it happen, but The Emptiness will get in. Where once you found happiness you now find a simple, almost innocuous seeming idea: why does it matter? As our unhappiness and pain accumulates, more toxic ideas follow. As The Nothing replaces our soul, as hate and hopelessness replace love, we rot from within. Do you understand?”

David nodded slowly. “Yeah, I think so” 

Prophet nodded. “The Emptiness is a disease. Nihilism is spiritual un-health. You wouldn’t tell someone infirm with the flu that their state is desirable. You wouldn’t serve the virus by spreading it, would you?”

“Of course not.” He wished so badly that he had known all this. He could have helped Ester understand how she was sick. “So does this mean that everything bad that happens is caused by The Nothing?”

“Many would find that idea comforting, to believe that all our pain has an external cause that we’re helpless against. But no, The Divine granted each one of agency, a true independent freedom of choice. We’re not just pieces on a board being played, each of our paths is our own to make, and so even though The Nothing may call us to it, with its promise of release through oblivion, we need not ever answer the call.

“But its too hard to fight sometimes. It’s not fair.”

“Yes, sometimes life is very hard, even without The Nothing’s influence, which is why we must be kind to each other.”

“Why does it have to be like that. Why do these terrible things exist?”

Prophet considered the question. “Perhaps to serve as a test. Perhaps because it must.”

David slumped in his seat. “Either way it’s hopeless. How can you fight gravity?”

Prophet turned and gave him a wry smile that didn’t quite seem to reach his eyes. “You give up too easily, David. Have faith. The gravity of a whole planet pulls on you every minute of every day, yet I doubt fear it much.”

“I don’t have faith.” 

Prophet didn’t respond, and as the silence dragged on David gave Prophet’s explanation more thought. “So…you’re saying even if The Nothing is always there, it’s not always dangerous?”

“That’s correct. The Nothing may be ubiquitous and eternal, but not always dangerous. Falling off your chair won’t do much harm, but fall from a cliff….

“So the more we hate the more The Nothing fills us.”

Prophet nodded. “It’s a struggle we all have to endure, but it isn’t forever. If we prevail there is salvation, and a place where our souls are beyond The Nothing’s reach.

David nodded slowly. “I guess that makes sense…” No, he wasn’t going to get taken in again. Religion was a disease. It poisoned his parents, and was just a big lie people told each other to comfort themselves and make stealing money and treating people like trash something to be proud of. Still…Prophet’s explanation did kind of feel right to him. It was better than any church sermon, youtube philosophy, or Ester’s “nothing matters” mantra. There had to be something wrong with it.”

“I still don’t see how any of this makes anything matter.”

Prophet glanced over at him, then back at the dark highway ahead.

“Tell me, David, have you ever loved someone?” 

David scowled and crossed his arms. “I’ve never had a girlfriend if that’s what you’re asking,” he said stiffly. Why did everyone take every opportunity to remind him of how much of a failure he was? 

“I didn’t ask if you had a lover,” said Prophet flatly, “I asked if you ever loved anyone.”

“Oh.” He relaxed a bit and thought. Had he ever loved his parents? He couldn’t remember a time when he had. Feared maybe, but loved? He didn’t think so. His first memories of his parents were of them yelling at him. They had always had rotted holes for hearts. 

What about friends? He had had friends, but none of them had ever stuck around very long. He didn’t have any extended family that he’d met more than in passing, and they didn’t give a shit about him. There was really only one person he could think of, and she was dead.

“I loved Ester, my sister.”

Prophet nodded. “And did you want her to be happy?”

“That’s all I ever wanted”

Even if it killed her.

“So her happiness mattered to you?”

“Yes, I tried my best!” The image of Ester on display in her coffin came to him unbidden and unwanted. “So what?”

Prophet smiled. “What’s truly remarkable is that within each of us is the power to create meaning, and we do so simply by loving. If there’s something you love, then the pursuit of it has meaning, as does sharing it with others. If you love another person, then they become meaningful. That meaning is eternal, once it’s created it can never be unmade.”

David tried to process this. “That doesn’t make any sense. It can’t last forever. What if someone stops loving you? You wouldn’t matter anymore.”

“When your sister died, did she cease to ever have existed?”

The question caught David off guard. “Well, no, but…”

“People, just like meaning, exist forever once created. They were, so they will always have been. The fact that they’re not now is nothing more than a limitation of our perception of time.”

David could feel something building within him, something he refused to name for fear that acknowledging it would destroy it. “It can’t be that simple.”

“And yet, it is. Too many put far too little importance on love. Love is a part of us and a power beyond us, and because of it, our world is bursting with meaning.”

“But we’re all just specks in the void. Here and gone so fast on a cosmic scale it’s like we never existed. How can we matter?”

Prophet nodded. “Tell me, which of the cells in our bodies is the most important? There’s no one you could point to, and yet a collection of seemingly insignificant things come together to create something of great meaning. The Nothing will pull your eyes away from the world and its meaning to instead stare into it, and you will lose yourself there. Turn away from it, David, and see the vast meaning inside yourself.”

David fought back tears. An emotion buried deep within him was beginning to surface. It was hope. He dared to name it. Hope that meaning existed, and that he mattered. It wasn’t an understanding so much as it was just pure feeling. He hadn’t realized how bought into his sister’s nihilism, her worship of The Nothing, he had been. He had always looked up to her, and she had been willing to die for it. 

“It’s…hard to believe.”

Prophet nodded slowly. “It is hard, David, to believe.”

Belief. He hated the word. But what did he believe?  Did he still believe that nothing mattered, and that Ester’s life hadn’t mattered? No, he didn’t think so, not anymore. Did he believe The Nothing had gotten to Ester? Maybe. Something had, something had hollowed her out and made room for all the pills and needles. It was more than just depression, he hadn’t recognized her by the end. He had thought Colby got her, but maybe The Nothing had been hiding in the shadows between the wheat all along. 

And every time she came to you for help, you gave her pills instead of hope.

He tried to push the thought away. “You said this guys back in the diner were Husk, right?”

Prophet nodded.

“And my parents are too?”

Prophet nodded again.

It broke his heart to think it, but…. “Then Ester must have been one too,” he whispered.

Prophet’s expression became unreadable. “The Nothing, though not conscious, is clever. Once inside it seeks to unbalance us in any way that will bring us closer to it. In some it stokes hate and hightens the pleasure taken in the suffering of others. In your sister it reinforced her fears and self-doubt. It found her deepest fears, weaknesses, and insecurities, then whispers to her that they were all true. It told her that only what hurts is real, and that any happiness is a fleeting illusion in an otherwise endless sea of suffering, and that she deserved it.

“Regardless of what strategy The Nothing employs, once The Emptiness has spread to all of a soul they cannot recover, and become one with The Nothing. All that’s left is a Husk — an empty shell that’s only purpose is to spread The Emptiness.”

“Ester’s soul is dead.” His heart sunk completely.

“Yes,” Prophet nodded solemnly. “I’m sorry, David. Worse still, The Nothing wasn’t satisfied simply with consuming her soul. In a final, profane act it used her suicide to spread The Emptiness like a toxic plume of spores in a sickening wind.”

“But Ester didn’t kill herself.” She hadn’t. No one said she had. Prophet was wrong. “She over-dosed.”

Prophet’s tone turned stern. “Your sister knew the path she was on and where it led. She could see The Nothing looming on the horizon, could see it getting closer every day, but she kept on that path, one needle at a time, until she walked right off the edge.”

“She wasn’t using needles until the end, and only after I couldn’t find her any more pills. Lot’s of people overdose that way. It wasn’t her fault.”

“Then who’s fault was it, David? Will you blame your parents? They may not have protected her, and were even the ones to pass her The Emptiness wrapped in opiates, but she knew better than to expect such comforts from them, or would you try to claim otherwise?”

“You think we didn’t know my parents were shit? We knew. We had to live with them dragging us down every fucking day of our lives. But we made a pact. We swore we would protect each other and make sure we both got out. But now? She’ll never get out, but that’s not her  fault, it’s mine. She’s dead because of me. Her soul is dead because of me. I knew she was addicted, but I wanted to believe her when she would tell me she’d give up the pills and needles when we got out. All I wanted was for her not to hurt anymore. It’s all my fault.”

“Yes, it is your fault.”

David felt like Prophet had punched him in the stomach. He couldn’t breathe. How could he say that? Rage surged inside him.

“She wasn’t the only one having a hard fucking time, you know!”

“So what are you going to do, David? How will you make your amends? Will you shirk your debt and drown your sorrows in drugs until The Nothing takes you too, or will you fight?”

Fuck everything. Why did everything have to hurt so much all the time? He wished Ester had made it out instead of him. He missed her so much. He was a such a failure at everything, she could have forgotten him easily enough and been happy. How could he ever make this right again? “I…I…I don’t think I can do this.”

“You underestimate yourself, but worse you underestimate me. You can’t even imagine the power I have, nor how much of it I can impart to you. But you will. Our shared ancestor, Daria, The Great Seeker of Truth, left behind more than just an account of her communion with The Divine. She left behind clues to something else, something truly ancient and powerful.”

David didn’t care. His head slumped against the window. “What is it?” he asked.

“A book. A very powerful book that was hidden behind seven seals I broke. This book.”

Prophet clicked on an overhead light and pulled a small, leather-bound book from his jacket pocket. He held it out to David who eyed it, disinterested, wishing it was a gun, but took it anyway. 

“It’s just some old book,” he said.

“It taught me all I’ve taught you, and much, much more. Why don’t you open it, and see what it shows you.”

Rolling his eyes, he opened the book to a random page. Instead of words he found bizarre hieroglyphs. Each one was jagged, angular, and strangely unsettling. They filled the pages, with almost no space between them. They meant nothing to him, but somehow he felt like he could almost trace the proper flow of them. That flow didn’t just fork in multiple directions, it seemed able to run backwards.

“What are they? They’re like, I don’t know, some kind of weird Middle-Eastern art piece? What am I…”

 From the corner of his eye David thought he saw something move on the page. He turned back and inspected it closer. He began to see a vast array of intricate details in the designs that he had missed before, and found that there was some kind of motion to them. An optical illusion? He wasn’t sure, but they were definitely moving.

The hieroglyphs became deeper, so much deeper, and as they did their two dimensional interweaving expanded backwards into the third, and then into a dimension he had no words for. He felt himself pulled into the hole of glyphs while simultaneously pressed back against his seat by an incredible force. The opposing forces tore him in two while opening him up. Into his human wreckage poured water in volume and fury. No, not water, everything, anything, all possibility. Endless morphing shapes and sounds of everything imaginable drowned his consciousness as they filled him, and though he wasn’t full — wouldn’t ever be full, couldn’t be full — he knew he was dangerously close to bursting, and what little that remained of him had been stretched too thin to contain it. He was dying.

Somewhere, what remained of the person named David screamed.

Prophet closed the book.

David was back in the car, still screaming. His heart pounded and he gasped for air. He slammed himself against the door, trying vainly to put any space he could between himself and the book as Prophet put it back into his jacket pocket.

“It’s a difficult read, isn’t it?”

“What did you do to me!” 

“Now you know something of my power. I’ve shared a taste with you of something few will ever know, the voice of The Divine. They don’t waste words. They will have told you something very important. You need to figure out what it is.”

“What the fuck does that mean!? Seriously, what the fuck did you do!?” David needed to get out of the car. Now! “You tried to kill me!”

“The voice of The Divine isn’t easy to hear. You’ll need time to understand it.”

“All I need is out. I’m out. Take the money back, I’m out!”

“No, David, all you need is sleep.”

“No I fucking need…” Prophet had said that last word in a weird way.  Now what had he been about to say? Why was it so hard to think? “I need to…”

Sleep”

Sleep?” David muttered the words through half-lidded eyes.

Sleep” 

Why was he fighting it? It felt good to give in. David closed his eyes and slumped in his seat.